Tag: freedom

Ethiopia: Embracing Development and Security Means Embracing Free Expression

Last week, Washington D.C. hosted the US-Africa Leaders Summit, where over 50 African heads of state discussed important issues ranging from public health to trade and development. I was honored to participate in a parallel civil society conference that highlighted the challenges faced by civic leaders on the continent, including the all too prevalent crack-down on free expression.

During the summit, participants repeatedly noted that respect for fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, is critical for sustainable economic growth. The press is a vital component of society, allowing diverse voices to be heard and balancing the power between the government and the people. The independent media also plays a particularly important role in combating corruption as it oversees how governments spend development and aid money.

In his post-summit address, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments, noting that “even though leaders don’t always like it, the media plays a crucial role in assuring people that they have the proper information to evaluate the policies that their leaders are pursuing” and that “nations that uphold these rights and principles will ultimately be more prosperous and more economically successful.” Secretary of State John Kerry—who spoke at the civil society forum—reiterated the belief that “when people can trust their government and rely on its accountability and transparency on justice, that society flourishes and is more prosperous and more stable than others.”

According to Secretary Kerry, the U.S. “will continue to support press freedom, including for journalists charged with terrorism or imprisoned on arbitrary grounds.” However, one of the United States’ most important security and development allies in Africa, my home country of Ethiopia, is also one of the continent’s worst jailers of the press.

On April 25 and 26, less than three months before President Obama highlighted the importance of a free press, three independent journalists and six bloggers were arrested and eventually charged under Ethiopia’s widely-criticized 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The journalists were known to write on a wide range of topics, including corruption. The bloggers, for their part, were part of group called “Zone 9,” which had a large following on social media and were known for their campaign to promote the rights provided under Ethiopia’s constitution. They were all arrested shortly after Zone 9 posted an announcement on Facebook indicating that the group would begin blogging again after a seven month hiatus.

The six bloggers and three journalists were held without any formal charges against them for over two and a half months and were finally charged on July 18. In response, 41 NGOs sent a letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn calling on his government to immediately release the detainees and revise the law. The U.S. government has also condemned such an abuse of anti-terror legislation. Secretary Kerry publicly expressed his concern about the arrests during a visit to Addis Ababa just days after the they were detained. He specifically mentioned blogger Natnail Feleke, with whom he had met on a previous visit, and adamantly insisted that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation should not be used as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas.

Unfortunately, what happened to these independent journalists and bloggers is neither new nor surprising.

On September 14, 2011, Eskinder Nega, a prominent journalist and human rights defender, was arrested and charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Ten months later, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. While the Ethiopian government asserts that Mr. Nega’s prosecution is unrelated to his work as a journalist, an independent inquiry found otherwise. In Opinion No. 62/2012, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentionheld that Mr. Nega’s imprisonment violated Ethiopia’s obligations under international law. In addition to procedural violations, the Working Group found Mr. Nega’s detention resulted directly from his exercise of free expression. They concluded that the overly broad offenses established by the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation constituted “an unjustified restriction on expression rights and on fair trial rights.” Thus far, however, the government has ignored the Working Group’s call to release and compensate Mr. Nega. It also continues to imprison journalists Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye on similar grounds.

Other international bodies have also criticized the use of anti-terror laws against journalist, including theAfrican Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and five United Nations special procedure mandate holders.  During Ethiopia’s Universal Periodic Review earlier this year, a number of countries, including the United States, raised similar concerns. Most recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, denounced the arrests of journalists and bloggers declaring that “the fight against terrorism cannot serve as an excuse to intimidate and silence journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations. And working with foreign human rights organisations cannot be considered a crime.”

The Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The international community can no longer tolerate these kinds of wholly inadequate explanations, especially when respect for human rights impacts the prospects for growth and security on the continent so greatly. If we are serious about development and peace in Africa, we need to hold the Ethiopian government accountable and reinforce the proposition that there can be no robust, sustainable growth without respect for the fundamental rights for all Africans.

Birtukan Mideksa is former federal judge, political leader, and prisoner of conscience in Ethiopia. She has held fellowships with the National Endowment for Democracy and Harvard University and is a member of Freedom Now’s Board of Advisors.


Originally Shared by: Sodere 


Ethiopia: Multiple arrests in major crackdown on government critics

The Ethiopian government is tightening its suffocating grip on freedom of expression in a major crackdown which has seen the arrest of numerous independent, critical and opposition voices over the last two days, said Amnesty International.

Six members of an independent blogger and activist group and a freelance journalist were arrested yesterday 25 April. Another journalist was arrested this morning. Meanwhile 20 members of the political opposition Semayawi (Blue) party have been arrested since Thursday.

“These arrests appear to be yet another alarming round up of opposition or independent voices” said Claire Beston, Ethiopia researcher at Amnesty International.

“This is part of a long trend of arrests and harassment of human rights defenders, activists, journalists and political opponents in Ethiopia.”

Six members of the independent blogger and activist group ‘Zone 9’ were arrested on 25 April in Addis Ababa. Group members Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kiberet, Natnael Feleke and Abel Wabela were arrested from their offices or in the street on Friday afternoon. All six were first taken to their homes, which were searched, and then taken to the infamous Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector ‘Maikelawi’, where political prisoners are held in pre-trial, and sometimes arbitrary, detention.

At around the same time on Friday afternoon freelance journalist Tesfalem Waldyes was also arrested. His home was also searched before he was taken to Maikelawi. Another freelance journalist and friend of the Zone 9 group, Edom Kasaye, was arrested on the morning of Saturday 26 April. She was accompanied by police to her home, which was searched, and then taken to Maikelawi.

“The detainees must be immediately released unless they are charged with a recognisable criminal offence” said Claire Beston.

“They must also be given immediate access to their families and lawyers.”

The detainees are being held incommunicado. Family members of those arrested reportedly went to Maikelawi on the morning of Saturday 26 April, and were told they could leave food for the detainees, but they were not permitted to see them.

The Zone 9 group had temporarily suspended their activities over the last six months after what they say was a significant increase in surveillance and harassment of their members. On 23 April the group announced via social media that they were returning to their blogging and activism. The arrests came two days later.

It is not known what prompted Waldyes’ arrest, but he is well known as a journalist writing independent commentary on political issues.

In further arrests, the political opposition party, the Semayawi (Blue) Party, says that during 24 and 25 April more than 20 of its members were arrested. The party was arranging to hold a demonstration on Sunday 27 April. They had provided the requisite notification to Addis Ababa administration, and had reportedly received permission.

The arrested party members, which include the Vice Chairman of the party, are reported to be in detention in a number of police stations around the city, including Kazanchis 6th, Gulele and Yeka police stations.

The Chairman of the party, Yilkil Getnet, was also reportedly arrested, but was released late on Friday night.

Over the last year, the Semayawi party has staged several demonstrations, which have witnessed the arrests and temporary detention of organisers and demonstrators on a number of occasions.

In March, seven female members of the Semayawi Party were arrested during a run to mark International Women’s Day in Addis Ababa, after chanting slogans including “We need freedom! Free political prisoners! We need justice! Freedom! Don’t divide us!” The women were released without charge after ten days in detention.

“With still a year to go before the general elections, the Ethiopian government is closing any remaining holes in its iron grip on freedom of speech, opinion and thought in the country” said Claire Beston.